Does Multitasking Really Help Get More Things Done?

05/10/2016

Healthy Living - May 10, 2016
David Prescott, PhD
dr-prescott.jpg
Multitasking
– performing more than one task at a time – often involves a complex process of switching focus and organizing your approach to a task. People who do many things at once often gain our admiration for their ability to juggle. However, psychologists and social scientists have investigated whether multitasking truly helps people be more productive. Most research suggests that multitasking has many drawbacks and likely adds to our overall level of stress.
 
What Does Multitasking Involve? From a psychological viewpoint, multitasking is actually a process of rapid switching.  The challenge to our brain (our executive control center or ‘mental CEO’) is that when you switch tasks you have to do two things. First, you have to realize that a switch will occur (‘I’m going to stop doing this and start doing that’). Second, you have to realize that you will need a new set of internal instructions to start working on the second task (‘I was doing research but now I have to deal with a stressed out co-worker.’). 
 
The largest problem associated with multitasking is that switching tasks takes time and energy. You lose time when you have to refocus and reprogram. For people who constantly multitask, each time they switch they lose a little time. For tasks with high levels of potential danger, like driving, that time can be the difference between recognizing a problem in advance, or recognizing a problem when it is too late to do something.
 
Multitasking’s Effect on Productivity:  It appears that multitasking for boring or simple tasks does actually help us be more productive. Think, for example, of unloading the dishwasher while you are stirring a pot on the stove. However, as tasks become more complex, multitasking leads us to be less productive. That is, it takes us longer to complete difficult tasks when try to do two or three of them at the same time, than if we finished one and then tackled the other.
 
Multitasking’s Effect on Accuracy: In general, the more things you do at once, the more mistakes you make. Even if you think that you may be completing work more accurately when you keep your mind active by switching from task to task, this is not usually the case. One researcher stated: “If accuracy was put on a graph, as soon as you start to multitask, the line starts to drop down.” 
 
Multitasking Can Increase Stress:  As anyone whose job involves frequent interruptions and the need to switch focus can tell you, chronic multitasking increases stress levels. This is most true when the work a person is trying to do is complex, and where they have less control over when they need to switch. 

What if My Life Demands that I multitask?  Generally, psychologists agree that avoiding multitasking helps you learn better, and finish things more quickly and accurately. However, in some situations, people simply have to do more than one thing at a time. Tips to handle multitasking in the most effective way include:
 
  • Try to control when you switchBe deliberate. People perform better when they anticipate that they are going to have to multitask, and if possible, control when they shift from one task to another. Your mind is able to prepare for the next challenge if you know it’s coming.
 
  • Multitasking is easier with the familiar: As we have probably all experienced, it is easier to multitasks when doing things that are familiar. If you have a choice, multitask with things you know well. Try to stay singly focused with highly complex or new tasks.
 
  • Don’t multitask in situations which impact your safety: Switching tasks may only take a couple of seconds, but in some situations a second is critical.  There really isn’t a safe way to multitask when you are driving, operating dangerous machinery, or performing other potentially dangerous tasks.
 
  • Realize that multitasking wears you down:  If your job demands constantly juggling multiple demands, you will wear down more quickly than if you can focus on a single task or problem.  You’ll need to spend more time recharging your mental store of energy!
 
For More Information: 
 
American Psychological Association:
http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx
http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2001/08/multitasking.aspx